Will China Cafe Give Szechuan Gourmet & Lan Sheng a Run For The Money?
As soon as I clicked on the Grub Street link about the newly opened Cafe China and spotted the wonton floating in spicy goodness, I knew I had to check the place out. Located on East 37th street (btw. Mad+5th) just a few blocks from Szechuan Gourmet and Lan Sheng, my go-to midtown Sichuan spot, Cafe China is entering a distinguished field, but in my book there’s always room in my heart for more good Chinese food.
Atmosphere-wise the restaurant is a step up from both Szechuan Gourmet and Lan Sheng with a sleek 1930s Paris meets Shanghai vibe. The lunch menu is correspondingly on the steeper side of the ML limit with the cheapest dishes at $8, climbing to $13 for Pan-fried lamb with scallion. This is up a bit from Szechuan Gourmet where most lunches are $7.60 ($10.95 on the high end) and Lan Sheng where lunches are $7.30. Lunch specials come with choice of soup (hot and sour or pork and seaweed) or spring roll and a choice of white, brown or fried rice. I placed an order for pick up for two lunch specials: Ma Po Tofu ($9) and Three Pepper Chicken ($9) as well as a side of Dan Dan noodles.
The Ma Po Tofu and Pepper Chicken pack some legitimate heat. Just opening the Ma Po container filled my office with the spicy, sweet smell of Sichuan peppercorns. The sauce wasn’t overly thick or gelatinous as some Ma Po Tofus can be, but it was big on flavor. Spice-cautious lunchers might find themselves reaching for extra rice to cool their mouths on this one. We’re talking a 3 alarm situation.
The chicken dish is first sauteed then flash fried to get crispy. I didn’t find it as crispy as a similar spicy fried chicken dish at Lan Sheng. Heavy on the heat and the soy sauce with plenty of actual hot pepper pieces this is another dish for spicy food craving lunchers.
The Dan Dan Noodles had a good amount of minced pork and garlic and more than enough sauce underneath to toss and coat the noodles completely. Not quite as hot as the Ma Po Tofu or the Chicken, there was still a little bit of lingering heat from the peppercorns.
Moving on to the accompaniments…the hot and sour soup was a rich, meaty version. Some restaurants will add sugar to their hot and sour, but any cloying sweetness was absent here. The pork and seaweed soup was a big disappointment. The broth tasted like a rich wonton soup but there was no actual seaweed to be seen (just a few stray scallions–maybe the seaweed was just a flavor in the broth?). And the pork part consisted of about 3 strands of mainly fatty pork. I’m not one to shy away from fatty pork in it’s varies forms but this was boiled fat where I was expecting meat.
The fried rice is a bit salty, just scrambled egg, oil and salt. Reminded me of the sort of mild fried rice I’d get at my Taiwanese friend’s house for breakfast after sleepovers (except her mom, who owned a Chinese restaurant, always added at least peas and ham, sometimes sausage).
The restaurant has only been open a week and I’d give it some time to let the dust settle. While they’re working out all the operational kinks you might prepare yourself for a wait. I placed my order for pick up and was told 10 to 15 minutes. Between getting out of my office and taking the subway one stop then walking several blocks, it probably took me a good 20 minutes to get there. I didn’t get my food until 25 minutes later. Snafus aside, this place has a lot of promise. Expect a full ML +/- in a few weeks after they’ve had a chance to get up and running. Early adopters let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Cafe China, 15 E 37th Street (btw 5th and Madison), 212-213-2810